Good evening, everyone. I feel honoured to be here with you all at Chichester Cathedral, participating in this extraordinary and moving moment of commemoration. I have been invited to share a few thoughts with you about learning the lessons of the Holocaust.
Let me begin with my family’s Holocaust story. I think I was no more than six years old when I discovered why my father had a foreign accent. My parents used to tell stories about their lives after breakfast on Sunday mornings, when we gathered round to look at family photographs. The photos of my dad at the swimming pool in Vienna, tower-diving, and turning somersaults, were spectacular. And then, when we looked at the photo of his father, I heard about how the Nazis came one night in November 1938 and took him away to Dachau. As it happened, my father had not been there at the time. Not content to follow in his father’s footsteps and go into the family business, he had embarked on a big adventure in 1936, at the age of 21, and escaped to South Africa.
As I grew older, I began to understand the strange mixture of shame and pride that seemed to emanate from my father when he spoke about his father. Shame, because he had broken free of family expectations, and so had not shared his Vati’s fate and been deported to Dachau; pride, because from his new home in South Africa, he had been able to arrange domestic permits for his parents, so that, along with his older sister and younger brother, they could travel to England – which is what they did just before the war broke out. It was many years later before I understood that ‘Dachau’ was the first Nazi concentration camp, and that my Grossvati had been among one of the groups of Jewish men rounded up on November 13, 1938, and imprisoned there in an effort to terrorise them. He was later released on January 19, 1939, on condition that he and his family left the country. I have a copy of the Dachau concentration camp document, which includes his name and number, and the dates of his incarceration.
My Viennese grandfather was one of the lucky ones – but that’s not how he felt. He and his family had been forced to leave Austria with just one suitcase each – their home, their business, everything was taken from them. But they didn’t just lose their property and the city and country they considered to be their home, my Grossvati lost his spirit. My Grossmutti had never worked, but when, after a few months in England, they arrived in Chicago, she had to get a job because utterly depressed and ill, he was unable to work – and never worked again. He died in his late fifties in 1955, just six months after I was born.
One Holocaust story, among millions of stories: many of which have never been told; because the stories perished along with the victims. This evening, we have been honoured to witness a very special and beautiful commemoration of the story of the rescue of 669 children in Czechoslovakia before the outbreak of the Second World War by Sir Nicholas Winton (1909-1915), known as “the British Schindler,” who died last year.
Commemoration: It is so important to remember. For Jews, remembrance is a commandment: Zachor! Remember! And what we are, compelled to remember above everything else, is that we were ‘slaves in in the land of Egypt.’ But we are not called to remember just in order to re-tell our story. We recall the Exodus from Egypt, at the Festival of Pesach – Passover – each spring, and also each Shabbat – Sabbath – on the day of rest that is also a day of freedom, in order to remember the lessons of our oppression and suffering. We read in the Book of Exodus, chapter 23 (:9): “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart [nefesh] of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And in the Book of Leviticus chapter 19 (33-35): “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. / The stranger that dwells with you shall be as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Eternal your God.” And in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 24 (:17-18a): “You shall not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the orphan; or take the widow’s garment as a pledge; / rather, you shall remember that you were slave in Egypt…” The assumption in all these verses – and more – is that if we would only remember what it feels like to be marginalised and excluded; if we would only remember what it feels like to be a stranger in a strange land, if only we would remember the injustice we experienced, then we would ensure that we would not oppress the stranger and the vulnerable in our midst; on the contrary, we would treat the stranger with justice ‘as the home-born’ and love the stranger as we love ourselves.
On an individual level, many people have learnt these lessons from personal experience. When my father met and married my mother in London, 1947, he took her back to South Africa. But then, when the Nationalist government came to power in 1949, they left because they were not prepared to live in what my father understood to be another Nazi, racist state. However, we, collectively, have not learnt these lessons – and it’s not just that Jews have not learnt these lessons; no people or nation has learnt these lessons – yet.
The word ‘yet’ is very important because it signals the possibility, the hope that we might yet learn. We need to learn fast. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust website reminds us that – and I quote: “Holocaust Memorial Day was created on 27 January 2000, when representatives from 46 governments around the world met in Stockholm to discuss Holocaust education, remembrance and research. At the end of this meeting, all attendees signed a declaration committing to preserving the memory of those who have been murdered in the Holocaust. This declaration became the statement of commitment which is still used as a basis for HMD activities today.” And so, in January 2001, the UK government inaugurated National Holocaust Memorial Day to take place each year on January 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp and death camp, by the Soviet Union in 1945. But as we all know, NHMD is not confined to remembrance of the Holocaust perpetrated by the Nazis. Tragically, xenophobia and genocide did not end with the defeat of Hitler in 1945. Today we also remember all those murdered in subsequent genocides, in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur. The Holocaust Memorial Day trust website reminds us – and I quote: “On HMD we can honour the survivors of these regimes of hatred and challenge ourselves to use the lessons of their experience to inform our lives today. HMD is a time when we seek to learn the lessons of the past and to recognise that genocide does not just take place on its own, it’s a steady process which can begin if discrimination, racism and hatred are not checked and prevented.”
Over the past four years, the news has been dominated by the global refugee crisis; in particular, by the millions of refugees fleeing from the conflict between the extremist warriors of so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the entrenched dictatorship that is the Syrian regime. Indeed, an estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011. The UN Refugee Agency [UNRA], providing data at the end of 2014, calculated that – and I quote: “There were 19.5 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2014” – 51% of whom “were under 18 years old.” 
The statistics I’ve quoted are for 2014 – no doubt the figures today will be even higher. So, what to do? The theme of National Holocaust Memorial Day this year is ‘Don’t Stand By’. How can we stand by and do nothing in the face of the plight of refugees fleeing persecution and genocide?
Last week, we learned of the death of a former Viennese Jewish refugee, who refused to ‘stand by’ in the current refugee crisis: Lord Weidenfeld of Weidenfeld and Nicolson publishing fame, who died on January 20. The news item in The Times, reports that the day before his death, at the age of 96, Lord Weidenfeld was ‘masterminding the evacuation’ of Syrian Christians ‘from his hospital bed.’ The two-page Times’ obituary explains: ‘Last year, aged 95, he funded a rescue mission for Christians in Syria and Iraq – the Weidenfeld Safe Haven Fund – to help them escape death at the hands of Islamic State. “I had a debt to repay”, he said. “It applies to so many young people who were on the kindertransports. Quakers and other Christian denominations brought those children to England.”
Today, on National Holocaust Memorial Day, as we recall the tens of thousands of ‘lucky’ refugees, who escaped the Holocaust, and the many millions, who were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices, because they could not escape, let us refuse to ‘stand by’. Let us, rather, be among those who are taking action in support of refugees of all faiths and none – action that includes, for example, lobbying local authorities to accept more refugees and provide them with accommodation. Of course, finding homes for refugees will not solve the refugee crisis; as in the Second World War, international cooperation is required to confront the root causes. But, as any refugee or child or grandchild of a refugee will tell you, providing refuge to those in flight is the only way of ensuring their survival. ‘Don’t Stand By’: the theme of National Holocaust Memorial Day is a challenge to us all. May we yet rise to the challenge. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
27 January 2016 – 17 Sh’vat 5776
- For the programme of the NHMD event at Chichester Cathedral, see: http://www.chichestercathedral.org.uk/whats-on/last-train-to-tomorrow.shtml ↑
- See: http://nicholaswinton.com/Nicholas Winton’s rescue of 669 children from Czechoslovakia is part of the larger story of the kindertransports that brought 10,000 children to England – mostly Jewish – and for the most part from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. See: http://www.kindertransport.org/history.htm ↑
- The literal translation of nefesh is ‘being’. ↑
- http://hmd.org.uk/page/stockholm-declaration ↑
- It is also important to acknowledge the pre-Holocaust genocide of the Armenians by the Turks in 1915, which is still denied by the Turkish authorities. See: http://www.armenian-genocide.org/genocide.html ↑
- http://hmd.org.uk/page/about-hmd-and-hmdt ↑
- An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011. See: http://syrianrefugees.eu/ ↑
- http://www.unhcr.org.uk/about-us/key-facts-and-figures.html The Office of the UNHCR – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – was established on December 14, 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly. The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide – http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646cbf.html ↑
- The imperative, Don’t Stand By! Is derived from a verse in the Torah, Leviticus 19:16: ‘You shall not go around as a tale bearer among your people; neither should you stand by the blood of your neighbour – lo ta’amod al- dam rei’echa: I am the Eternal.’ ↑
- ‘Weidenfeld dies with final act of kindness’ by Simon de Bruxelles, The Times, 21.01.16, p. 21 ↑
- The Times, 21.01.15, p.56. ↑
- For example: Brighton Migrant Solidarity. See: https://brightonmigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/ In addition to petitioning Brighton and Hove Council to accept more refugees, Brighton Migrant Solidarity has also launched Thousand 4 £1000, a project that raises funds through small regular donations to provide the rent for secure accommodation for vulnerable migrants in the Brighton and Hove area. BMS is asking for £1 a month from 1000 people to secure a property. ‘Our hope is that Brighton & Hove will be a space where everybody can find a home.’ ttps://brightonmigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/1000-for-1000/ ↑